If two-and-half-year-old Samuel Thibault* gets tomato sauce on his palms or cat fur on his fingers, he immediately asks his mom to wash it off. “It’s very odd. He’s the only kid I know who’s obsessed with being clean,” says his mom, Aurélie Thibault.* The quest for clean hands began when Samuel started eating solid food. “He doesn’t like the feeling of stickiness,” she says. If his hands get dirty, he refuses to eat and waits for a washcloth, so Thibault often holds her son’s peanut butter toast for him while he bites into it. Her son’s neatnik tendencies are puzzling to Thibault, who says their Ottawa home is by no means spotless.
Though my own two kids were never shy about smearing food all over their faces, my son was finicky about textures as a toddler—particularly natural surfaces he had to navigate barefoot. To prevent a tantrum, I carried him across the lawn to the patio, or over the sand to the water’s edge.
Kids like Samuel, or my son, won’t necessarily grow up to be clean freaks, says Daphne Korczak, a paediatric psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. During toddlerhood, children have the ability to explore more, and their reactions to tactile sensations are just a reflection of their personalities. “Some toddlers have a greater degree of behavioural inhibition in their temperament when it comes to novel situations or new sensations, and they take longer to get used to new things,” says Korczak.
If your child is avoiding sticky snacks or sandy beaches, demonstrate that the uncomfortable sensation is harmless and can even be fun, says Korczak. Keep in mind that exposure should be gradual and tailored to the child and his response. “We measure progress in weeks and months—not days,” says Korczak. Show him how to plant flowers with bare hands, or demonstrate how to hold the peanut butter toast to minimize mess and then have him feed himself. Approach crafts like fingerpainting gradually. (You might start off using a sponge.)
“Whether kids outgrow this phase depends in part on their parents’ response and the opportunities for exposure,” Korczak says. While many toddlers will show sensitivity to touch or food messes at some point, few will have long-term issues. Talk to the doctor if you have other developmental concerns, if his reactions are limiting family activities, or if there are other physical symptoms (like red or raw hands from repeated washing).
Brandi O’Neill, a mom in Kimberley, BC, knew something was amiss with her son, Noah, even when he was an infant. His breastfeeding latch seemed to bother his mouth—he would cry and pull away in distress no matter what O’Neill tried—and as he grew older he “freaked out” over foods with texture. “Everything bothered him. If there was anything on his hands, he wanted to wash them immediately.” At 15 months, he touched shaving cream during a Gymboree activity and had a full meltdown. An occupational therapist later diagnosed him as “sensory sensitive,” a designation that’s not as severe as Sensory Processing Disorder. (Kids with SPD are either hypersensitive to textures, sounds and tastes, or crave constant stimulation and cannot keep their hands to themselves.) “For him, every feeling is intense. Sensations are amplified,” O’Neill explains. Noah is learning to manage his reactions, but will always be sensory sensitive. He can now tolerate soft materials like flannel, and likes playing with spoons and toy cars in a big bin of flour.
“As long as the behaviour isn’t limiting, at some point parents have to accept their child for who he is,” says Korczak. “It’s OK if he doesn’t love to fingerpaint, but it’s good to get to a place where he’s not going to run screaming from the room.”
* Name has been changed.
A version of this story appeared in the July 2014 issue with the headline, "Stressed by mess," on p. 54.